"Due to the lockout, this will be the most closely scrutinized draft. With no free agency, coaches & scouts are solely focused on the draft," wrote superagent Drew Rosenhaus on his twitter account this week.
Barring a drastic change in the pugilistic tone between the owners and players, the Draft will be the first opportunity to improve rosters this season, and teams will be unable to pad their depth charts and fill gaps with veteran free agents. Scrutiny will be increased, and we might also see more picks based on need than value. Without free agents, holes in a depth chart will look a lot deeper and a lot more needy.
Free agency will be back before the season starts, the question is when will the season start? There may be varying levels of court-ordered labor peace before a new CBA is finally hammered, but the start of free agency would be a big sign forward.
It is doubtful we'll see it before the Draft, however. So the Saints' 27 free agents are in limbo, with the team only able to hope and guess which ones will be re-signable, or when.
The Saints have a small and front-loaded draft class in 2011, four picks in the top three rounds and then a pair of seventh round picks, including a recently-acquired compensatory selection.
1. Carolina - Alabama DT Marcel Dareus
2. Denver - LSU CB Patrick Peterson
3. Buffalo - Texas A&M OLB Von Miller
4. Cincinnati - Georgia WR AJ Green
5. Arizona - Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert
6. Cleveland - North Carolina DE Robert Quinn
7. San Francisco - Auburn QB Cam Newton
8. Tennessee - Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers
9. Dallas - USC T Tyron Smith
10. Washington - Alabama WR Julio Jones
11. Houston - Cal DE Cameron Jordan
12. Minnesota - Auburn DT Nick Fairley
13. Detroit - Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
14. St. Louis - Temple DT Muhammad Wilkerson
15. Miami - Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi
16. Jacksonville - Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt
17. New England (from OAK) - Illinois DT Corey Liuget
18. San Diego - Missouri LB Aldon Smith
19. New York Giants - Alabama RB Mark Ingram
20. Tampa Bay - Illinois LB Martez Wilson
21. Kansas City - Oregon State DT Stephen Paea
22. Indianapolis - Colorado T Nate Solder
23. Philadelphia - Boston College T Anthony Costanzo
24. New Orleans - Take the typical names we've seen so far, Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, and Georgia DE/LB Justin Houston. We've already told you about the fit of picking Kerrigan and Heyward.
Clayborn has a mix of reviews, with some concern about a shoulder nerve condition he was born with called Erb's Palsy, a subpar performance at the bench with only 17 bench presses of 225. A dark horse would also be Clayborn's Hawkeye teammate, DL Christian Ballard, who ran sub-4.7 40s at 286 pounds, outrunning his shorter, lighter teammate Clayborn. Ballard is a former tight end with great size and at 6'3.5, 283 and many qualities of, though not as quick, former Saint DE Charles Grant, a first round pick in 2002.
It was Clayborn though who bore the brunt the offense's blocking schemes and is a more refined pass rusher and football player. A team captain who always played with hustle, Clayborn is smart and quick player not to be confused with one-dimensional. The shoulder condition is something that Clayborn has learned to fight, and while it will be given medical scrutiny, may be something that never affects him as a pro. Would anyone be shocked to see Clayborn go in the top 20? No.
Georgia's Justin Houston is seeing a huge disparity in scouting reports that likely hinge on whether he'll need to be taught a new position. Houston is pretty one-dimensional as a down-stance pass rusher, but is undersized. He's without much proof real pro ability at linebacker, so a lot of 3-4 teams are attracted to him as an outside rusher. He's smart as a pass rusher, but an undeveloped underclassman in other areas- we'll say that Gregg Williams passes.
In earlier mocks, we ruled out runningback, and offensive line should not be a priority position unless the Saints have strong reason to believe that they will lose starting LG Carl Nicks. Without Nicks on board and plus the impending free agency of starting center Johnathan Sullivan, the Saints would be in a bind and could decide to go with a first-round offensive guard.
Payton's Saints have had great success with mid-round offensive lineman picks Jermon Bushrod (5th), Carl Nicks (5th) and Jahri Evans (4th). G Andy Alleman, a third round pick in 2007, was a notable exception and never saw the field in New Orleans. Second year C Matt Tennant, a fifth round pick in 2010, may fight to win a starting job. Florida G Mike Pouncey, Florida State G Rodney Hudson and Baylor G Danny Watkins are the three to watch in the first round.
In the end though, we project the Saints to address the defense with the top pick.
So let's add a wildcard: huge Baylor DT Phil Taylor. The biggest man at the Senior Bowl, Taylor found himself booted from Penn State after a school union fight. Taylor pled down from a felony to a misdemeanor plea. Joe Paterno gave up on Taylor and booted him shortly before the 2008 season. Transferring to Baylor, Taylor continued his development and is the best true nose tackle on the draft. Just under 6'4 and 335 pounds, Taylor played near 370. He took control of his conditioning and showed up in perfect shape at the Senior Bowl, following it with a fantastic pro day. A potential pick with concerns about intangibles, Taylor could be a potent weapon in the middle of Gregg Williams' defense.
Like newly-signed Saint DT Shaun Rogers, Taylor is a big man who has rare footspeed and quickness - the kind of uncoachable physical advantage that teams covet. He'll have a rookie mentor in Rogers, who may be one of Taylor's better comparisons in the NFL, and the Saints will surely consider Taylor's off-field grooming before considering him as their man. The Saints hosted Taylor visit in March and have already made up their mind whether or not they would consider Taylor because of his personal issues.
A popular projection, Clayborn would shock no one here. We'll take titanic DT Phil Taylor at 24 because of his enormous potential. Next to Sedrick Ellis, Taylor could star as a rookie.
v1.0-Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward v2.0-Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan v3.0-Kerrigan
Second round pick (56th overall): Clemson S DeAndre McDaniel
v1.0-Kentucky WR Randall Cobb v2.0-Oklahoma S Quinton Carter v3.0-North Carolina OLB Bruce Carter
It would be really difficult for the Saints to pass on either of our first three picks here, but McDaniel also makes a lot of sense. The Saints under Payton have never missed taking a defensive back in the first three rounds. Starting strong safety Roman Harper is on the free agent market, and the Saints have every intention of signing him. But there is a potential mass migration out of the New Orleans secondary: Usama Young, Darren Sharper, Chris Reis, Matt Giordano and Pierson Prioleau are also set to be free agents. McDaniel is a great story - from tragic, troubled childhood blossomed into an honor roll student and team captain, and while he isn't a burner he has the makings of a solid safety in the NFL with a linebacker's mentality and the right angles and mental quicks of a defensive back.
Third round pick (from Washington) (72nd overall): Michigan State LB Greg Jones
v1.0-Temple S Jaiquawn Jarrett v2.0-Clemson DT Jarvis Jenkins v3.0-LSU OL Joe Barksdale
Outside linebacker is an aging position for the Saints - the only youthful returner at the position is Jonathan Casillas, coming off injury. Jones isn't the fastest straight line runner but was a good collegiate pass rusher who developed more than one way to get to the quarterback. He was extremely productive and always around the ball. At 6'0, 242 pounds he was consensus first-team All-America, and when his team was destroyed by Alabama in the 2011 CapitalOne Bowl, Nick Saban made a point to explain that the success the Crimson Tide had on offense was because they neutralized Jones and the rest of his defense didn't step up. A four year starter with excellent football IQ, Jones would be maximized by an attacking Gregg Williams defense, despite slipping down boards after disappointing offseason workouts including a 4.80 40 at the combine.
Third round pick (88th overall): Tulsa TE/FB Charles Clay
v1.0-Mississippi State OLB K.J. Wright v2.0-TCU WR Jeremy Kerley v3.0-Cal S Chris Conte
Is he a fullback? Is he a tight end? Is he a tailback? The ridiculously versatile Clay played every skill position on offense - including Wildcat QB - at Tulsa, and has excellent hands and good speed for a 6'3, 245 pounder. With Heath Evans set to be a free agent, the mysterious Clay would not be ready to start at fullback day one if ever - Clay is too narrow up top to be a full-time lead blocking fullback but has West Coast fullback written all over him, with the opportunity to contribute to the thin tight end position as well. Don't be shocked to see the Saints take a skill position play in the first two days of the draft.
Seventh round pick (225th overall): Pitt DE Greg Romeus
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
Once a top prospect, a disastrous decision to return to Pittsburgh for his senior season has cost Romeus dearly. A back injury knocked him out of fall practice, he gave it a go in the opener but struggled with the pain, and opted for back surgery. In his first game back in November, Romeus tore his ACL. Throw in the loss of his mother in a battle with cancer, and Romeus' senior season was one he'd quickly like to put behind him. Without much senior game film and without any offseason workouts, Romeus' stock is in free fall. Otherwise, Romeus is a textbook pro right defensive end. He's got powerful, long arms and in 2009 was Big East Defensive Player of the Year with 11.5 TFL, 8 sacks, INT, FR, 3 FF and a blocked kick. When healthy he is an accomplished pass rusher and is a zero risk pick on day three, yet with no guarantee he'll be ready to play as a rookie.
Seventh round pick (compensatory) (242nd overall): Virginia TE Joe Torchia
v1.0-Portland State TE Julius Thomas v2.0-Penn State RB Evan Royster v3.0-Miami LB Colin McCarthy
At 6'5, 260, Torchia is a blocking mold tight end who was showing signs as flourishing in an opened-up offense at Virginia, especially in a close loss to USC when he collected five receptions for 73 yards. He missed most of the 2010 season when he tore his right shoulder labrum in October, but had the injury repaired and rehabbed by Dr. James Andrews. High school defensive end has a good foundation as a blocker.